Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Light and Shadow

Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son by Mark ColvinColvin_light

An ideal beach read. Mark Colvin tells an engaging story with wit and passion. Through the exploits of father and son this book ranges from violence and intrigue in Revolutionary Iran to the jungles of Vietnam and wide open steppes of remote Mongolia. Along the way we get stories of English boarding school life, the birth of Double J radio station (now Triple J) and forays into British and Australian politics.

It’s hard to say what exactly the focus of this book is and in one revealing aside late in the book Colvin acknowledges as much. The book is nominally about his father’s role as a spy, yet Colvin knew about this identity while his father was alive and seems largely reconciled to it and their relationship.

The book is also about his time as a journalist and foreign correspondent, yet most of the recent decades are skipped over in just a few pages. Ultimately, ‘Light and Shadow’ is an enjoyable, insightful memoir of a widely admired figure. And as the book sales show, that’s clearly enough.

As a non-practicing journalist (I have a diploma and degree in the subject, yet never worked in the field) I found the foreign correspondent sections the most entertaining. It’s a popular genre, though the best accounts are always somewhat cautious about stating the importance of their role or the degree of difficulty faced.

I also appreciated the rare moments when Colvin would relax his journalistic shield and offer his opinions about his profession or the wider world. Throughout the book in both words and deed, Colvin cautions the reader over how we form and express our conclusions. His own view is that while such views are fine, they must come after a careful review of the facts — and be subject to change as the details do. When he does allow himself the space to comment, he often writes with an empathy and balance that is rare and welcome.

Through the personal stories of figures like this you also gain a useful reminder of how all-consuming the Cold War was. The careers of both father and son, while taking very different paths —one keeping information secret, one trying to reveal it— were fundamentally shaped by the conflict and its strictures. While still a very recent past, we often forget the nature of the threat and its impact on how people lived — to the detriment of our sense of perspective on today’s conflicts.

I suspect (and hope) there’s a second volume in the works. If I can offer one gentle criticism, I’d have liked more stories of Colvin the ‘broadcasting legend’ (as the blurb so describes him) than Colvin the school boy. More of the man himself than how he came to be. But the book more than makes up for this with its tales of the exploits of his father and charm of its story. So maybe the full journalistic account is a pleasure we can look forward to as a beach read in years to come.

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